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Reyna with Cruz in a San Francisco event
Gilded Serpent presents...
Rhythm and Reason Series,
Special Experiences
by Mary Ellen Donald
Originally published in Bellydancer Magazine in 1978 as part of an ongoing column. This magazine was published by Yasmine Samra in Palo Alto, California.

Rhythm is on my mind.  I’m thinking back on some very special experiences which some of my bellydancing friends and I shared – experiences spotlighting Middle Eastern rhythms.  I’d like to share some details about these so that you might see clearly how you can enrich your bellydance performance with rhythmical fun and excitement.

Belly dance and Flamenco
We couldn’t believe we were there – I and my 6-piece Middle Eastern Drum Ensemble at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco with an audience of 1,800, providing an accompaniment for the famous flamenco performer and instructor, Cruz Luna, and the outstanding flamenco dancer and professional bellydancer, Reyna Alcala.  We are performing Arabic Suite as part of the Ole! Ole! Spanish Dance Company’s flamenco presentation.  The stage is darkened; a single light begins to shine on Reyna; flamenco guitar breaks the silence, Reyna begins a standing taqsim, the singer Isa Mura wails her lament and fades. 

One drum along with a tambourine plays a sensuous bolero as Reyna slowly moves around the stage.  Shrill zaghareets, the entire drum ensemble plays a powerful Baladi rhythm as Cruz suddenly appears onstage; their spirited duet in Baladi ensues.

They begin a floor taqsim, the music changes to a sweet 4/4 Spanish rhythm – the Zambra – with tambourine, guitar and singer joining the ensemble.  Music is enriched with cymbals, then one drum enters.  Cruz begins clapping Baladi and dancing the debke; guitar and singing fade and full drum ensemble takes over with excitement and drama building.  The mazhar, giant Egyptian tambourine, adds its outrageous sound, hitting accents wildly.  Our ensemble abruptly shifts into 3-3-2 pattern, Spanish Rhumba and the guitar player and singer rejoin with fiery finale.

Mainly of flamenco aficionados, our audience gave our Arabic Suite a clamorous response.  This liason of Belly dance and flamenco had begun as a flash of imagination in Cruz’ mind!  He asked me what the rhythms should be in a typical, short Belly dance routine.  I told him, “They are usually Baladi, Chifte-telli, and Baladi again.”  Starting with that stark schema, we each came up with some “Couldn’t we add this?” and “How about that?” and ended up with a more sophisticated presentation.

I have shared these details about our Arabic Suite so that you may envision how shifts in mood, tempo, and instrumentation incorporate into a performance effectively.  It could go, without saying, that to do this successfully requires a great deal of rehearsing!  With all of this, I’m not suggesting that you run out and look for the nearest flamenco artist with whom to join forces next month for a show.  It takes a great deal of professional experience and creativity to combine Arabic and Spanish forms of dance.  My hope is that you realize the versatility of Middle Eastern percussion rhythms so that you utilize them more imaginatively.

Rhythm Night at the Bagdad
Have you heard about the student nights that we periodically present at Belly dance cabarets in the San Francisco area?  During such events an array of students from one or two dance instructors take the place of the professional dancers usually scheduled for the evening. Often these students are enjoying the experience of dancing with live Middle Eastern music for the first time.  In this way the students get a chance to see what it feels like to be a professional dancer in a night club setting.  "Then why not have such an evening for drum students?" you may ask.   We did just that. 

Last December George Dabaie, drummer at the Bagdad Cabaret in San Francisco and I co-sponsored a drum student night.  Thirteen of our students took turns sitting in with George Elias, owner of the club and oudist and vocalist, for 10-minute sets.  Some of them performed in pairs; most took the drummer’s seat alone!  Many professional (and some student) dancers performed that evening.  With dance, cymbals, drum, and tambourine, rhythm was in the spotlight.  In keeping with this emphasis my drum ensemble performed an Egyptian drum number that we copied sound for sound from a solo from a tape which Bert Balladine brought from Cairo last fall.  In previous drum ensemble presentations we had created our own arrangements using Middle Eastern rhythms as the base.  This was the first time we had tried to reproduce the exact sounds that one would hear in the Middle East.  We found work on this number an exciting challenge as well as a real enrichment to our rhythmical repertoire.  The grand finale of Rhythm Night came with a guest performance of Khadija Rabanne.  In addition to performing her famous standing and floor taqsims, Khadija danced to two of her favorite fast selections: Feiruz’ Kaan Azzamen as sung in a well-known Lebanese musical, and Taroub’s Ya Sitty Ya Khitara, a lively Spanish rhumba with dramatic breaks.  Guest drummer Nilu Khalil who is also a professional dancer matched Khadija’s rhythmical ability in the dance, and they performed a completely rehearsed drum solo, taken sound-for-sound from one of the solos on the album Belly Dance! Spectacular Rhythms of the Middle East.  No one in the audience could doubt the amount of time and energy that went into such a well-coordinated drum solo.  Again I am sharing these details in hopes that you will seek out more ways to have fun with rhythm.

Bellydance in Concert
When we go to see bellydance productions we usually see too many bellydancers.  When we go to see productions with a variety of dance forms represented, we usually don’t see any Belly dancers.  This situation was not so in Berkeley, California on December 17, 1977.  That evening at the Berkeley Community Little Theater, “Harvest for the World” was presented as a benefit for Everybody’s Creative Arts Center of Oakland.  Well-know Bay Area dance companies performed Modern, Jazz, Tap, Latin, and African dances.  One Belly dancer appeared in this show – Khadija Rabanne.  If you had been there, you would have been proud of your profession that evenin!.  Khadija performed with Nilu Khalil on tambourine and doumbec and me playing doumbec and mazhar.  Egyptian Suite  was what we called it.

Khadija Rabanne

With Khadija’s permission given, I’ll spell out the rhythmical and instrumental changes we incorporated within a 10-minute performance.  We tried to capture the flavor of Egyptian style music and dance, of course using our own imagination to embellish the rhythmical schema. 

1. Masmoudi, starting with cymbals, then tambourine, then drum;
2. single doum baladi, 8 simple measures;
3. baladi, improvised with solid heavy accents;
4. single doum baladi, 4 simple measures;
5. chifte-telli, 4 slow patterns filling in and opening up the last beat dramatically together;
6. 3-3-2 patterns, fast and light, speeding up and going directly into the slow section;
bolero, slow with Khadija showing off her abdominal control and snaky hand and finger movements;
8. bolero, fast for a North African style floor taqsim;
9. baladi as Khadija rises, Nilu playing drum instead of tambourine now – two drums beating as Khadija gets audience clapping loudly, then I begin with mazhar.  (This giant Egyptian tambourine, about 14 inches in diameter with cymbals 3 ½ inches in diameter, beautifully inlaid, usually causes a flurry of excitement in an audience just as I pick it up.  Then the powerful sound just drives them crazy.);
10. 6/8, 8 measures with a thunderous boom at the end.

            We (in the ensemble) wanted you to know the details of our Egyptian Suite not just to dazzle your brain but to excite within you the fantasy of your doing something similar.  Given the scarcity of musicians who can play the melodic Middle Eastern instruments, we encourage you to work on similar presentations using percussion creatively.  Of course we should add that we don’t think that a typical 5-part or 3-part Belly dance routine can be performed as effectively with percussion only.  It’s the many and dramatic rhythmical changes that made our suite what it was.  In short, we are very pleased with the results of combining high quality Belly dancing with high quality percussion.  We wish the same for you.

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